Full Member of the Ruling Party

Brett Murray’s painting ‘Spear of the Nation’, featuring President Zuma in a VI Lenin pose, with a generously proportioned penis protruding (impossibly) from the shadows, has provoked a storm of controversy, and has been written about so much that it barely warrants any further comment. You can see the painting and read comment here: Mail&Guardian. Then you can read about the attempts at government censorship of the image here: CityPress; and some other decent pun-laden commentary here: Mondli Makhanya.

By the standards of the art world the painting is relatively tame; an artist called Ayanda Mabulu has suddenly gained some attention for also having painted Zuma in the buff (though without controversy), and his stuff is way more shocking. You can look at his Zuma pic here, or a nutty one about Robert Mugabe over here.

Some of the criticism clearly comes from people who do not visit galleries. But there are three areas of the debate that are genuinely shocking that I’d like to raise, because our national tendency towards outrage so frequently misses the point. All of them are embodied in this response from the presidency (Source: CityPress):

Said spokesperson Mac Maharaj: “We are amazed at the crude and offensive manner in which this artist denigrates the person and the office of the President of the Republic of South Africa.

“The Presidency is concerned that Brett Murray fails to appreciate that freedom carries a deep responsibility,” he said in the statement, adding that the right to freedom of artistic expression is not absolute.

Maharaj also said the Presidency was concerned that the painting “perpetuates a shocking new culture by some sections of the artistic world, of using vulgar methods of communicating about leading figures in the country, in particular the President”.

“Intense hatred of the new democratic administration or the ruling party should not translate into distorting South Africa’s value system of emphasising respect and of ensuring that disagreements are expressed in a cultured and civilised manner, which these artists are failing to do.”

1. Moral compass and degeneracy

Maharaj talks about our value system. Last night on the news, Reverend so-and-so was speaking at a high-profile funeral and used the opportunity to speak about the President’s penis (wouldn’t have been my go-to anecdote for a funeral). He expressed dismay that our society has lost its moral compass to such a degree that an artist could sink to such levels of degeneracy. He added that freedom of expression could not be allowed to cover such horrors.

This is utter raving lunacy for a few reasons. Firstly, as I’ve said, this would not have been considered shocking by the standards of the art world for the last number of centuries (even if we only restrict ‘art’ to mean paintings and galleries; literature has been nuttier for longer, and even the Bible is more graphic and passes harsher commentary on its leaders). Where have these people been?

Secondly, our country’s moral compass has been pointing far further south than this painting suggests for a very long time. Yesterday, a suspected thief was beaten by a township mob and then set on fire. Parents rape and kill their own kids here. Even our own wildly polygamous president has a chequered history with sexual abuse, conspiracy, and corruption, which is presumably part of what this painting is protesting. Many of those charges against Zuma remain unproven, but I haven’t heard too many reverends using high-profile funerals to complain that our president fathered a child with his friend’s daughter out of wedlock. If we’re going to talk about moral compass, let’s not imagine that this painting is a step down from our usual standard.

Thirdly, this presidency claims God’s blessing upon his party (see point 4 of this article) such that they will rule ‘until Jesus comes back’. The president — and especially his outraged reverend — should know then that the Bible disagrees strongly with them that leaders deserve unqualified reverence:

Deuteronomy 17:17 “The king must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold. 18 When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is … not (to) consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left.”

Matthew 23:8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi’, for you have only one Master and you are all brothers.”

In both passages, leaders are not to see themselves as superior to ‘ordinary’ citizens. They are brothers. They are not due special respect or disrespect. They are open to the same criticism as the rest of us. If our Christian and political leaders wish to invoke Jesus’ favour, then they should at least share his outlook.

If someone wishes to use their imagination to paint me in the nude then I should be as flattered or insulted as suits my personality, but I should have the same constitutional protections as the president. If it’s libellous for him, it’s libellous for me. None of this ‘But he’s the President (awed hush)’. If you’re not allowed to criticise the president in a democracy, don’t be surprised when you wake to find that you don’t have a democracy.

2. Bad analysis of visual communication

The second problem is that the outrage about this painting is so devoid of analysis appropriate to the field. All public commentary is on the level of ‘It’s Jacob Zuma’, and ‘That’s a penis’, and consequently ‘It’s trying to humiliate Jacob Zuma by showing his penis’. Maharaj’s analysis viewed it as ‘intense hatred’. That’s how toilet-stall graffiti works, but not art.

Visual art communicates primarily on symbolic levels. Depicting Jacob Zuma as the subject could mean lots of things. He could be representing Jacob Zuma, that’s true. But he could also stand for the present government, the ANC more broadly, the whole of the country, and so on. His penis might represent his shame (and so be an attempt at humiliating him), but it could also represent sexualisation of (for example) our society, it could represent abuse of power; it could even represent our government’s moral compass.

In other words, the picture may just as easily be about you, not JZ.

I can understand public misunderstanding of the function of art, because we don’t really study the arts deeply at school, and even if you did, you only had to get 30% in matric to pass, so you might have missed every point that mattered on the way to getting your qualification. But even our ministers overseeing the arts somehow fail to understand their field.

3. Threats to freedom and democracy

The most worrying feature of all is how something so innocuous could now form a new attack upon civic freedoms in this country. By way of reminder, Maharaj said:

“The Presidency is concerned that Brett Murray fails to appreciate that freedom carries a deep responsibility,” he said in the statement, adding that the right to freedom of artistic expression is not absolute.

The government set their lawyers upon the gallery, the newspapers, and anyone else that lingered long enough, trying to destroy the original image and any existing copies. At least they’re currently only sending lawyers. How long before it’s soldiers?

If this picture is indecent, then where does one draw the line? Does one censor Michaelangelo’s David for indecency, as in a famous Simpsons episode about the arts? If the problem is the implied criticism or humiliation of the president, then what about written criticisms that impugn his character or conduct? Is calling the president a dork treason now?

It’s amazing to me that the same people whose blood was shed to win freedom from enslavement to an evil government are willing to sign over those freedoms to a new government, just because they think this one will surely not abuse their trust.

Freedom of expression does carry responsibility, but I would have thought that the ANC of all people would recognise the importance of being able to protest wrongs in government. If anything, one of those responsibilities is to criticise those in power, not to pander to them.

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4 thoughts on “Full Member of the Ruling Party

  1. Jordan Pickering says:

    Thinking about it, given that the painting is a Lenin parody, the pose might represent Zuma’s desire to serve the poor and downtrodden, whereas the addition of the penis represents the degree to which his sexuality and selfishness in general cuts against that and negatively defines his presidency.

    That’s another guess, anyway. Maybe people should ask Brett?

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      Thanks, Jacques. That’s much appreciated. I was supposed to be setting exams or marking essays today, so hopefully this post wasn’t all a waste.

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